Why You Should Practice Deep Breathing (and How to Do It)

Stressed, anyone? Whether it’s the holidays, the weather, or just the same old tensions, you know that stress takes its toll on your well-being. Sure, you’d love to motivate yourself to take up a meditation practice, yoga class or some other endeavor that promises an effective retreat from the weight of daily pressures. (A vacation from your problems, anyone?) How about taking a deep breath? No, seriously. Experts are increasingly lining up to recommend simple breathing exercises for both immediate stress relief benefits – as well as deep, lasting physiological advantages.

Last week, NPR highlighted the power of breathing in an interview with several researchers, including Dr. Mladen Golubic of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. Listen to the audio clip below or read the transcript here.

Just Breathe: Body Has A Built-In Stress Reliever

According to Golubic, breathing exercises create positive changes that help improve conditions as serious as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart failure (PDF). Breathing exercises improve lung function by “stretching” airway tissue and inducing the release of a “protective chemical” known to maintain airway integrity. As Esther Sternberg of the National Institute of Mental Health suggests in the NPR interview, deep breathing also shifts the body out of sympathetic nervous system control and into parasympathetic mode, a healthier, calmer state in terms of general well-being and biochemical balance. This curbing of stress hormones (like cortisol), in turn, preserves the body’s immune function and keeps blood pressure and heart rate in check.

Finally, deep breathing for relaxation can also influence gene expression related to inflammation, oxidative stress, and cellular metabolism. Yes, I’ve covered this one before, but here’s a look back for those of you who have joined us recently. The longer you practice deep breathing, the more pronounced the benefits for any particular condition and for gene activity.

So, this all sounds good and fine, you say. How can I make it work for me? What do you actually do? Although the breathing exercises experts describe closely parallel the breath work in traditional yoga practice, you don’t need to take up yoga to learn the techniques. It’s really about increasing your oxygen intake and – as author and researcher Dr. Herbert Benson suggests – inducing the body’s relaxation response.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Simply get comfortable in any position and put your hands on your chest and stomach.
  2. To maximize oxygen intake, it’s important to learn to breathe from your abdomen (“belly breathing”) rather than your chest. Focus on your breath until you feel your stomach rise and fall more dramatically than your chest with each inhalation and exhalation.
  3. Breathe in through your nose, hold the breath for a few seconds and then exhale through your mouth. The time it takes to exhale should be about twice what it is to inhale. (Many suggest a 4:7:8 pattern – 4 to inhale, 7 to hold, and 8 to exhale.) Let go of other thoughts while you breathe.
  4. Do 4-8 breath cycles 1-3 times every day.

If you’re having trouble focusing on just your breath, consider incorporating a simple repetitive movement or phrase. In an Italian study, researchers asked two groups of participants to repeat yoga mantras or part of the rosary (the Ave Maria, in case you’re curious) six times a minute to correspond with natural circulatory fluctuations in the human system. The rhythmic recitation allowed both sets of participants to synchronize their cardiovascular patterns and increase their oxygen intake. Both groups reported a greater sense of well-being and displayed favorable physiological changes (greater Baroreflex sensitivity and less variable heart rate).

There’s even a device on the market called RESPeRATE that measures the frequency of breathing and chimes to encourage the user to breathe deeper and less often. It’s marketed specifically as a means to lower blood pressure. The research supports the product, but it’s the rhythmic concept (easily replicable with a watch second hand or metronome) rather than the $300 device itself.

The logic of the Primal Blueprint has always embraced the simplicity of living well. A healthy lifestyle needn’t feel like a burden, punishment, or deprivation. It’s about the succession of small steps and simple acts. The ease of basic breathing exercises reflects the same logic: small efforts go a long way when practiced regularly.

If you don’t already practice deep breathing, it’s one of the most straightforward, undemanding goals you can set for yourself. Sure, it could be a painless New Year’s resolution, but why wait to start something that could help get you through the holiday a little less stressed, a little bit healthier. There’s no better deal out there.

I’d love to hear your feedback. Do you do deep breathing exercises? How and where do you do them? What have you noticed since you started? Are you interested in starting a routine? Share your thoughts and questions, and thanks for reading.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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85 thoughts on “Why You Should Practice Deep Breathing (and How to Do It)”

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  1. I am not sure if I am the only one, but this post causes my google reader to close, and I had to come directly to the site to read it. perhaps it is the audio file?

    1. Anyone else experiencing problems with this post? I suppose it could be the audio file. I don’t often include streaming audio in posts.

  2. Nope, no problem at all for me. I’m not using a “google reader” though, whatever that is.

    Perhaps when you use a google reader and have a problem and then come to the site and there’s no problem you might want to post on the google reader site rather than the site having no problem? 🙂

  3. It’s like I run out of air when I do the deep breathing. I have to take several small breaths after each deep breath to fill my lungs with air.

    1. It’s like anything else. Proper practice will improve performance. I was taught varying breathing techniques through martial arts and I had the same issue at first. After a few weeks I found myself able to take deep breaths (and move) without the little breaths in between.

    2. Try using your lower abdomen more when you breathe in, but don’t restrict the motion of your chest–just don’t concentrate on puffing it out, and let it rise and fall naturally, following the lead of your lower abdomen. It’ll help get more oxygen into your lungs.

      Besides that, just getting used to it like Brett says will help too.

    3. It’s because the average human uses 1/3rd of their lung capacity. Abdominal breathing will gradually allow you to use your lungs to a greater capacity. In spiritual traditions of Asia, breathing has always been regarded as a science of energy management and important to healing arts.

      1. To clarify, your lungs are in your chest, not your abdomen. Therefore the statement “abdomenal breathing” can be confusing, probably because there’s no such thing. However, relaxing the abdomen will allow the lungs to expand their capacity and will also tend to push the abdomen out, whereas tightening the abdomenal muscles will also restrict the ability to take a deep breath.

    1. Even while you sleep huh? Interesting strategy. I do the same with hearing

  4. Qi gong uses breathing techniques like this as a central theme to their art.

    1. Qigong is ALL about the the breathing;) You need breath to cultivate qi.

      I’ve been practicing qigong for a few years and learning proper breathing mechanics (my qigong teacher is also a breathwork instructor- bonus!!) was life changing.
      I didn’t realize how much I had been holding my breath and depriving my cells of proper oxygenation. My energy levels improved a lot right away after learning to breath correctly.

      I think proper breathing is right up there with sleep and diet when it comes to health, but we take it for granted even more so than those other elements.

  5. Thanks Mark, your post could not come at a better time. I am really stressed these days, and I started taking a couple of deep breaths just after reading this.

    This breathing led me to yawn a few times, and now I feel more relaxed.

  6. I used to do this when I had a bout of depression which really helped me move forward.

    As normal though once back to full health I stopped doing it.

    I fully believe that this type of breathing is fundamental to wellbeing, mentally and physically, especially when done on a regular basis

    Thanks Mark for reminding me of one of our own self healers.

  7. No problems for me.

    I frequently do deep breathing before going into the doctor, as apparently I have white coat syndrome.

  8. After a few minutes of deep, controlled breathing I’ve been able to lower both my pulse and blood pressure significantly for a short duration.

    During my running days when my at rest rate was in the low 40s, I would really freak out doctors when I took slow, deep breaths before they took my pulse. They would often check me twice, thinking their machine was off.

    1. Wanna freak them out even more? When they put the blood pressure cuff on your arm and pump it up, flex your muscle a little, once they write something down, relax…lol I did that once and the Doctor went and got another cuff!!! lmao! Having fun with stuff that is normally boring!

  9. I’m 7 months pregnant and have been regularly practicing deep breathing and meditation to prepare for labor (as best I can!).

    It wasn’t until I started doing breathing exercises that I realized how erratic and shallow my breathing became when I was really upset or stressed. I think it’s very interesting how our breathing and emotional states are related.

  10. I’ve done the 4:7:8 breathing in stressful meetings at work for about a year and it really helps bring the stress down.

    I also yawn on purpose, which is supposed to have similar effects to deep breathing. Three or four yawns on purpose will often trigger a serious of regular yawns.

  11. There’s so much I have to remember to do each day, and now I have to breathing exercises as well. I’m getting stressed out…

  12. This is great advice and goes along with good yoga practice. Im training for my 1st #halfmarathon and I practice deep breathing during the easier parts of my long run. Amazing how teh very simple things in life can make the biggest difference.

  13. I’ve taken some qigong and yoga, and it’s amazing how helpful practicing deep breathing is. I also use it frequently to get through Crossfit workouts. For those who are feeling stressed about having to remember something else — I realize you’re being mostly facetious, but deep, rhythmic breathing will soon become second nature.

  14. I have been meditating for a few years now and proper breathing is a central component of proper meditation. I always feel physically and mentally refreshed when done and use it as a cool down to my workout. I hope meditation will gain wider acceptance in the US.

  15. Someone once suggested breathing in as deeply as possible, hold, then breathe out as long as you can imagining you are filling a balloon – when you think you can’t breath out anymore, go the extra breath. It really helps aid relaxation.
    Also, it caught my attention about praying the Rosary. I don’t believe Ave Maria is part of the Rosary. I wonder if the writer was thinking ‘Hail Mary’? Not important, just caught my attention.

    1. “Hail Mary” in Italian is “Ave Maria”. It’s the name of the prayer, and the first line. The research was Italian, maybe they just didn’t translate the name of the prayer.

      1. OK, I suppose the first words are “Ave O Maria” to be precise, in case anyone is nitpicking.

  16. strongly strongly suggest no one holds their breath for more than a few seconds and assuredly not for 7 seconds.I speak from very real personal experience.
    The exhaling twice as long as one breathes in seems to be fine but the holding it for that lenght of time naddah..esp if one does it daily.
    I canny recall the explanation physiologically but try it for a few weeks and see what happens.
    Might have just been me but i would hate others to suffer what i did.
    BTW meditation seems to have originated from hunting…many seem not to be able to ‘hold’ the one pointedness ..
    Try looking at something that moves such as a flame or an insect and also i’ve found that if my paleo-lifestyle (i loathe this term !) is all running well one really doesnt need to ‘meditate’..one life , vomit, is a meditation !!..but seriously so

    1. You should read about chi gung then. The art of breathing like Mark suggests has been done for many, many years. It was probably just you and you have to work up to holding your breath. Everyone starts in a different place.

    2. the 4:7:8 doesn’t have to be seconds. It’s just the ratio, so it can be counted quickly or longer, depending on where your breath is at.

  17. Very interesting. I bought the iPhone app BreathPacer and it works nicely for this.

    The instructions of the app says “height is a very good predictor of this rate [your therapeutic breating pattern] because blood volume circulated through the cardiovascular system varies based on height”.

    I’m gonna give this program a try too:

    7 minutes of holding my breath didn’t really feel right though. Is there any science behind that recommendation?

  18. There is a breathing technique developed by a Russian medical doctor, Konstantin Buteyko. For about 20 minutes, you reduce the frequency and depth of your breath. You test your progress every 5 minutes by holding or “pausing” your breath: a healthy, non-asthmatic person should be able to pause comfortably for 50 to 60 seconds.

    This rebalances the level of carbon dioxide in your lungs and in your blood. Carbon dioxide is an effective bronchodilator and actually relaxes all of your smooth muscle, including your digestive tract.

    Buteyko believed that processed food caused certain people to “overbreath,” lowering the amount of carbon dioxide in their blood. He claimed that he could find no credible report of a death from asthma prior to 1900.

    I was a lifelong asthmatic, taking an inhaler 5 times a day, and within 2 weeks of trying this technique, have never looked back. 4 and a half years and no medicine.

    And it is very relaxing, fun, easy and more low key than some of these OCD western versions of yoga.

  19. I have been doing breathwork since last Feb. Exrcises I learned 40 plus years ago in a yoga class. My exercised focus more on holding the breath until it becomes difficult. My brother who runs 10 – 18 miles cannot come close to the time I can hold my breath. I do believe that over time breathwork can have profound effects.

  20. I don’t know if it’s all in my head, but my blood pressure always seems a lot lower after I’ve done some concentrated breathing. I have weird a tendency to be stressed/uptight/whatever while driving and end up holding my breath.

  21. Hey Mark, I have a question I have really been wanting to ask you. I eat fairly primal with the only exception of having my meats/fish/poultry cooked. But, there is one snack that I make myself. It is called Biltong and it consists of topside/silverside beef (grass fed I live in New Zealand and most if not all our cows are grass fed the majority of the time) which is marinaded for 24-48 hours in a solution containing apple cider vinegar, salt (around 25 grams per kilogram of meat + most of it gets washed off with the vinegar) coriander seeds and pepper.
    After having been marinaded it is hung up in a box I made with a 40W light bulb at the bottom and vents at the bottom and top creating a convection current of warm air, this air reaches temperatures of only 30 degrees celsius. After about 3 days hanging and drying roughly 50-60 percent of the original weight is lost through evaporation. This “cured” meat can then be stored for quite some time and tastes unbelievably good. I really would like to hear your thoughts/opinions on this as I love eating the stuff. Oh and by the way I keep all the fat on its the most delicious part.

  22. The Buteyko method is a proven way of improving asthma. While a Buteyko instructer would agree with what is being said here, that one should breath through their diaphragm and less often, they say it works because it is shallow not deep breathing! My experience with is says this is true and the individual who ran out of breath doing the exercises in the commnets above may have also noticed the same thing.

    Buteyko believed that in modern world we tend to hyperventilate, ie we breath too much and that we blow off too much C20 in the process, which he claims to be and reducing very important for normalising hormones and reducing inflammation.

    There is some primal logic to this aswell as Weston Price noticed that when societies modernized then children started mouth breathing leading to too much breathing.

    I wont defend the science simply because i do not know it well enough. What I will say is that it worked for my asthma when strictly paleo eating couldnt.

  23. Deep Breathing is an art of healing or breath related cure originally introduced to the world through the art of Yoga. Thank to it. Because of Yoga many people have found solution to their health problems. In Yoga it is popularly known as PranaYama which means Exercise to your Soul.

  24. The deep abdominal breathing taught in Qigong—Chinese mind/body exercises–helped me immensely in my successful battles with four bouts of supposedly terminal bone lymphoma cancer in the early nineties.

    Qigong breathing and exercises kept me strong in many ways: it calmed my mind–taking me out of the fight-or-flight syndrome, which pumps adrenal hormones into the system that could interfere with healing. They pumped my lymphatic system—a vital component of the immune system. In addition, qigong energized and strengthened my body at a time when I couldn’t do Western exercise such as weight-lifting or jogging–the chemo was too fatiguing. And it empowered my will and reinforced it every day with regular practice. In other words, I contributed to the healing process, instead of just depending solely on the chemo and the doctors. Clear 14 years and still practicing!

  25. In pilates you use the chest to breath, but expanding it to the sideways.

    Esther Gokhale argues that you should breath with your chest rather than using the abdomen in similar way as in pilates. She says it´s the correct way.

    I find this breathing very calming and relaxing, so I like this breathing tecnique. I feel like I can breath deeper this way than with the abdomen.

    What´s your opinion on that.

  26. Hey thanks for the ‘Hail Mary’ – ‘Ava Maria’. Makes sense and interesting to know the history. Now I’ll include humming ‘Ava Maria’ while breathing.

  27. I deep breathe when I feel stressed and find it helps a lot over the short term. Now I’m better at realizing I’m stressed and doing those breaths

  28. As a former competitive golfer, I used 2 deep breaths then one valsalva breath before every shot. It worked better than any sport psychologist.

  29. Good post, Mark. I often use a 4:4:4 protocol to lower my heart rate after physical activity, prepare for sleep, or when deepening a yoga pose. Diaphragmatic breathing is a skill in-and-of-itself.

  30. An easy way to “get” abdominal breathing is to lay on the floor and put a Kleenex box on your lower abdomen. You can feel the weight of it as your breathe from the belly as it rises and falls.

    1. As a voice teacher, this is what I usually do (although I use a book) with most of my students when introducing this kind of breathing. It’s amazingly difficult for people to switch over to abdominal breathing after years of breathing somewhere up around the clavicles…but every little kid you see does it naturally!

  31. I’m no expert, but I believe that Qi Gong generally does not recommend holding the breath, as in Yoga. Especially for those with a heart condition. Deep breathing from the belly is the more important aspect.

  32. In normal qigong one doesn’t hold the breath, although there is a brief gap natural gap between inhalation and exhalation. I have done various styles that advocate holding percentages of breath in the lungs ands so forth–but dropped them. What’s natural is best. I learned my qigong from Ramel Rones, one of three formal disciples of Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming (Google him). Some dimwit commented negatively on my advice about the Kleenex box. No doubt he learned his qigong online: “Ten minutes to be a qigong master.”

  33. I practice the 4:7:8 method each night before bed, about 10 cycles, it really helps me relax, clear my thoughts and fall asleep quickly. I learned this method many years ago watching Dr. Weil on a middle of the night infomercial (at the time was having major issues falling and staying asleep)…priceless information! I rarely (if ever) have sleeping issues anymore!!!!

    1. I love Dr Weil. If he’d just give up grains he’d be so much less of a fat slob, but he does have some great tips!

  34. I do some meditative practices. Breathe in through your nose. Back straight. Fill your belly and push the belly out and down with air. Tongue should be at the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. Play with the energy!

  35. Hi, check out cohérence cardiaque. Consists of breathing in and out in 9 seconds for 5 minutes. 3 Times a day. For better immune system, stabilizing stress levels , etc. Don’t know its english version, but should be something like “Heart Coherence” 🙂 Breathing out should be longer and you can insert pauses( hold your breath)

  36. Argh… In the comments already people have mentioned Buteyko shallow breathing and Esther Gokhale’s recommendation of chest breathing. It all makes so much sense, yet it all appears to conflict.

    For instance one Buteyko website stated diaphragmatic breathing stimulated the lymph nodes in the lower abdomen, but Gokhale felt that breathing through the stomach would squash the organs or something. At least between those two I would pick the Buteyko explanation.

  37. Does our stomach need to rise when we breath in and go down when we breath out? Do I have it backwards?

  38. Normal abdominal breathing: The stomach expands on inhale as the lungs fill from the bottom up; on the slightly longer exhale the abdomen gently contracts.

    There is reverse breathing, which we all do naturally when lifting or moving something heavy: the stomach contracts on the inhale and expands on exhale. This is used in qigong for martial sets and in Chinese martial arts in general.

  39. I’m just stil confussed! Sorry! Can someone post a video of what this looks like? I’ve had issues with breathing my whole life. I just want to “see” once and for all what correct breathing looks like.
    To relax, I’ve been laying on the ground with a rock on my belly and lifting the rock up when I breath in and letting it fall while I breath out.
    I swear this is what 2 Naturpathic Dr and one theripist told me to do.

  40. There is now a Mac app in the appstore called “Pranayama” that you use to set up a custom breathing program. Works pretty nifty so far.

  41. Thanks a lot for sharing this knowledge . I am a chest breather . Very recently i realized that the way i breather is not right.

    Once in a blue moon i get to take a deep breathe and it is really amazing .So i have decided to practice it , but still i have just started.

    mail me few tips as i am a beginner.

    When we are babies we do abdominal breathing , the now why do we breathe through the chest , who taught us that ??

    Once again thanks a lot & God bless you.


  42. Regarding deep breathing… Try taking a breath, holding it for a second or two, and then taking another breath without letting out the first breath. (Breathe, breathe again, then exhale.) You will feel relaxation and stress release flowing through your entire body after you exhale.

  43. Breathing indeed helps but sometimes I was very stressed during public speakings that I was forgetting for a moment what I was about to say. It’s all in our head. I’ve noticed that if we visualize a LOT the upcoming event, with it’s all details and things that we fear then it’s easier when it comes as we’re already a bit prepared for facing those things.

  44. Doctor says I cannot take deep breaths before measuring blood pressure. I have high bp and the breathing lowers it to a near normal state….Doc says that it is cheating! Yes or no?

  45. I have been panicking about my heart doing funny things like beating fast, minor chest pains, my limbs going numb, palpitations, etc. for several months. Almost to the point of wanting to see a doctor, which means it had gotten pretty bad. Last night I discovered this deep breathing idea and practiced it for about 45 minutes. About 15 minutes in, I felt better than I had in months. After about 30, I literally felt like my whole circulatory system had reset itself! Thank you so much, Mark for this extraordinary piece of information. It has changed my life and my whole outlook on life, which I believe to be just as important.

  46. Why do we have to breath out through the mouth? Why can’t it be the nose? This is the part I’m confused about?

    1. You should always breathe in and out through the nose. Otherwise you deplete your cells of oxygen. This article is not well researched.

      Look up the Bohr effect and Buteyko method. There’s also an interesting Youtube video called ‘Less breath better health’

  47. Why is there not a scientifically proven way for the absolute best way to do deep breathing …..Seems there is 100’s of ways to deep breathe….one…two….three …etc minute breath rates….I have been practicing deep breathing for years, I eat vary healthy….Have never been sick in my life, have never been to a doctor other than for physicals. I am 74 years old, feel great & have no pain in my body….I practice deep breathing everyday….Mostly one & two minutes breaths….Just added another superfood to my daily routine…Raw cacao powder in my black coffee, I eat very healthy….I look around me and I see sick people, fat people…Have never taken a prescription drug, have never had a flu shot….I love deep breathing….Also take 1/2 tspn of 160,000 heat units of cayenne pepper in a little water three times a day….Best thing I have ever taken…

  48. Slow breathing is good, but deep breathing is very unhealthy and deprives you of oxygen! Don’t believe me? Look up the Bohr effect and the Buteyko method.

    Deep breathing=hyperventilation. Ironically it can make you stressed out.

  49. I’ve been looking into Patrick McKeown’s Oxygen Advantage, but I can never get it to work for me. I practiced it’s techniques for about 7 months last year and have been trying it again this past week and I’m starting to stall out again.

  50. Hmm is anyone else encountering problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to determine if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

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  54. I was told by my yoga instructor that I breath backwards. My stomach gets smaller when I inhale and larger when I exhale. I’ve tried and tried to do it the right way, but I can only do it that way when I’m sitting and bending forward. Is it that big of a deal to do it the right way? I also catch myself holding my breath when I walk or exercise. How do I break that bad habit? I have COPD and was recently put on oxygen. I can’t do anything without running out of air. I want to do everything I can to get air back. Any help is appreciated!!